EU leaders are meeting in their first face-to-face summit since the coronavirus crisis, with low expectations of a deal on a €750bn (£670bn) post-Covid stimulus package.
French President Emmanuel Macron said it was a “moment of truth” for Europe and the next hours would be decisive.
The main issue is how much of the recovery fund will be handed out in grants and how much in loans.
They also need to agree on a seven-year budget worth another €1.07 trillion.
Arriving for the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “the differences are very very big and I cannot say if we will find a solution this time”. It would be desirable, she said, but people had to remain realistic.
The Brussels meeting is due to continue on Saturday but EU leaders may need longer to reach a deal.
European Council President Charles Michel acknowledged that the talks would be “very difficult”, but Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said nobody should lose sight of the big picture – “we’re faced with the biggest economic depression since the Second World War”.
Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said “we need a fast, strong and united response to the pandemic to kick-start the European economy”.